- Despite a crackdown on illegal logging on the border between northern Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province last year, earlier this month Myanmar announced it seized 850 tons of teak and other timber it says were illegally logged in the week up to April 5.
- The seizures – and lack of data on the timber, the location of the logging and final destination of the wood – has raised fresh questions over transparency in the timber sector from campaigners.
- Myanmar is home to much of the world’s remaining natural teak, a highly-coveted hardwood prized by luxury furniture and yacht manufacturers. In August 2019, Chinese authorities carried out a series of raids along China’s border with Myanmar, seizing more than 100,000 tons of wood held in warehouses.
- While annual exports of luxury timber from Myanmar to China are thought to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, only $3 million worth of teak was officially recorded in Chinese customs data last year.
Earlier this month, Myanmar’s Information Ministry announced that the country’s Forest Department had seized nearly 850 tons of illegal timber between March 30 and April 5.
Teak and other hardwoods accounted for the vast majority of the haul. No monetary value on timber was released, and the exact locations where the seizures took place was not provided.
In response to the announcement, Nick Cox, country director of WWF-Myanmar, said in an email that he “commends the Forest Department and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation for this important step in halting the illegal timber trade in the country and helping keep Myanmar’s vast and unique forests better protected.”
Myanmar is home to much of the world’s remaining natural teak, a highly-coveted hardwood prized by luxury furniture and yacht manufacturers. Cox added that from 2010 to 2015 Myanmar had the third-highest annual net loss of forest area in the world.
Faith Doherty, forest campaign leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), also lauded the seizures, but added she was frustrated at the lack of detailed information.
“Clearly whoever recognized this timber recognized the illegality, but what was it?” she asked in a phone interview. “Was it because it was over the annual allowable cut? Was it because they cut logs outside of a concession? We have no idea, and these are the issues that Myanmar needs to deal with because they need to be more transparent.”
WWF-Myanmar was unable to confirm any further information on the exact species involved, their value, or their intended destination.
“The question with the 850 tons,” Doherty said, “is what was the species of timber, and where was it destined? Was it destined for the international market? Was it something being smuggled around Myanmar, or into India? That is the problem with just reporting seizures.”
In August 2019, Chinese authorities carried out a series of raids along China’s border with Myanmar, seizing more than 100,000 tons of wood held in warehouses. According to Myanmar law, all timber exports must go through the port in Yangon, the former capital and the country’s main commercial center. Overland trade is prohibited, so any timber that originated in Myanmar and was found in Yunnan province, where the raids took place, is thought to have been smuggled across the border.
According to Chinese customs data cited by the EIA, in 2013 the country imported roughly $500 million worth of logs from Myanmar, 94% of which entered the country via the porous land border. The most recent data provided to Mongabay by the agency show that in 2018 China, the main importer of Myanmar teak, officially imported just five shipments of teak logs worth nearly $3 million.
Additional data show that in the 2019-2020 financial year, Myanmar’s forestry department seized 44,340 tons of timber, with Kayah State and the Sagaing Region accounting for most of the seizures. As with the seizures from a few weeks ago, precise details on timber species and value was not publicly available.
“When it comes to inside Myanmar, the forestry department has really tried to do its best in very difficult circumstances,” Doherty said. “The issue of illegal logging is more than about trees, it’s really a governance issue. We have had conversations with the government, and not a lot of people really know the details of the international trade. Most people will know that there is illegal logging and China is buying it, but in terms of criminal syndicates and the actual value of the timber, this is a bigger issue than just somebody going into a forest and cutting down trees.”
She explained that following the late 2019 raids, the smuggling of logs and sawn timber into China had dropped significantly, though the recent seizures show that illegal logging is still taking place.
“We have not heard or seen or anything like the amount of timber crossing the border before that enforcement action last year,” Doherty said.
“Seizures like these help turn the tide of illegal logging,” Cox, from WWF, added. “But [we are] working with the government of Myanmar to take forest protection a step further by promoting sustainable forestry and strengthening traceability throughout the entire timber supply chain so that Myanmar can be a source of legal, sustainable timber to the world.”
Banner image: A logging camp in Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Forest Trends.
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